“The large ideas that influence intellectual and aesthetic movements are...first introduced into the community of writers and artists through philosophy. Philosophical texts codify the definitions and the boundaries for the concepts that have influenced Western thought, art, science, and politics since the days of Plato and Aristotle…” -Art Berman, Preface to Modernism.
John Merriman’s Dynamite Club succeeds in a portrayal of the decadence and injustice of a fin-de-siècle Parisian society of bourgeois capitalists, which fueled the expansion of anarchist ideology and even dyed its destructive creed with tints of virtue and righteousness. However, an apparent infatuation with vindication of the brilliant Émile Henry and the terrorists of the so-called ‘Dynamite Club’ –which he intelligently achieves through overemphasis on the grueling socioeconomic conditions that staged the advent of this terrorism– leads him to disregard an account of the philosophical framework that grounded this specific form of anarchism at this specific time in history. As such, a variety of questions remain fundamentally unanswered. From where –other than purely irrational vengeance– did the anarchist morality ‘of the deed’, which legitimized the killing of innocents, acquire intellectual authority and appeal? Why did anarchism preach the absolute destruction of the capitalist state instead of merely its restructuration? How did the obsession on a post-state utopia acquire relevance amongst an intellectual class?
The following paper attempts a solution, in echo of Art Berman’s introductory words, what can be called a ‘genealogy of the anarchy of the Dynamite Club of fin de siècle France,’ through an exploration of the intellectual sources for their moral relativism, their disdain of the capitalist system, and their faith in utopianism. More specifically, through a conceptualization of this form of anarchism as a symptom of a broader consciousness of aesthetic modernity, concentrating on the Baudelairean fixation on the present, the aesthetic rejection of capitalist empiricism, and the imminence of utopianism as an innate outgrowth of the secularization of society.
Understanding French anarchism’s claim to moral relativism at the end of the nineteenth century –that is, evaluating the academic legitimacy of their reformulation of traditional morality to account for the injustices of the bourgeois elite– entails a revision of the history of romanticism’s preoccupation with contemporary beauty and Baudelaire’s subsequent glorification of the present moment. To be sure, art and notions of beauty stood at the core of basic anarchist theory, which was to a large extent a movement bread out of aesthetic preoccupations. Kropotkin’s exhortation of young artists to “place your pen, your chisel, your ideas at the service of the revolution,” and more importantly, to “tell us what a rational life would be, if it did not encounter at every step the follies…of our present social...